We at DFC have cleaned a lot of mystery residues off of hardware in our time. Cherry cola in a keyboard, lunch grease in a trackball, corrosion of all kinds — you name it, we’ve pried it off some computer part.
Thankfully, we’ve never come across a cleanup job like Eliot Curtis did recently. A broadcast operations manager at the San Francisco CBS station, as well as a hacker in his private life, Curtis volunteered to restore a Buchla Model 100 synthesizer for California State University East Bay Campus. A model of early synthesizer that helped usher in the 1960s mania for electronically generated music, this particular instrument had been languishing in storage since the fad passed.
But Buchla Model 100s were also the nexus of a particularly groovy rumour: Designer Don Buchla had connections that cooked up some fabulously powerful LSD, and some Buchla synths, owned by Ken Kesey, were reputed to have had components coated in acid by his Merry Pranksters.
Curtis began cleaning this particular real-life synthesizer and came right up against this rumour — physically.
“As Curtis was disassembling a module that appears to have been added to the Buchla Model 100 after it was delivered to the school, he noticed a crystal-like residue stuck under one of the instrument’s knobs. In an attempt to dislodge it, he blasted it with cleaning solvent and tried to simply rub it off with his finger. Forty-five minutes later, he started to experience a tingling sensation, the beginnings of an acid trip, that would last nine hours. Three separate chemical tests later identified the crystallized substance as lysergic acid diethylamide — or LSD — which can be absorbed through the skin, and can survive for decades.”
As a former chemist, I find this story fascinating and went on a deep dive into the varying opinions on how long LSD can last in the open air. Most commenters on Curtis’s accidental trip claim it’s a tall story: LSD is pretty unstable in its pure form, and in its most common format — a liquid, usually soaked into the absorbent paper. Exposure to heat, light, and oxygen over a large surface area can cause it to break down within months.
However, pure acid was frequently stabilized with additives before sale. Additionally, the relatively large mass of crystallized acid found under the Buchla knob could retain potency deep in its centre, especially in the cool, dark, and undisturbed conditions in which the synth was stored.
From inspiring musicians and Silicon Valley innovators to alleviating end-of-life anxiety, LSD has many uses. Add to this list an excuse to bunk off work for nine hours! Kidding aside, getting dosed without preparation can be scary. Whatever Curtis’s experience was, I’m glad he made it out intact, to service many future synths — with gloves on, next time.